Vietnamese (6): a bit of ngôn ngữ học

ngThe pronunciation of Vietnamese is hard for several reasons. Every syllable carries one of six tones, indicated by five special accents (à, ả, ã, á, ạ) that turn Vietnamese writing into equal parts text and score. The numerous different vowels and diphthongs are no piece of cake either. To give just one example: the language has a shorter and a longer ‘uh’ sound (spelt as â and ơ respectively).

But while these things look intimidating right from the start, something unexpectedly treacherous lurks behind the seemingly innocuous letter combination ng. As in English and other Germanic languages, this pair stands for the sound heard in sing and singer; the phonetic symbol is ŋ. In Vietnamese, however, this sound can also appear at the beginning of a word, as in ngai for ‘throne’. We don’t do that in English, or any other European language that I’m aware of for that matter. As a result, it’s surprisingly difficult for us, or for me at any rate, to distinguish words beginning with ng from those beginning with n. And since ngai and nai (‘deer’) have different meanings, ignoring the difference is not an option. Continue reading


Vietnamese (5): travel!

Panorama_of_HanoiDid you think I had stopped learning Vietnamese? I can’t blame you, for I thought so too. But I’ve managed to rekindle the dying flame with a bold plan: I’m going to visit Vietnam. That’ll teach me! (Hopefully in the literal rather than the idiomatic sense of the phrase.) I haven’t booked the tickets yet, but the idea is to spend three weeks in Hanoi next spring. And that perspective has already given me just the motivation I needed to go back to my books. Or rather, go back to one and start on another. Continue reading

Less of the many and more much, please

IMG_0731To me, ‘many more’ sounds silly. It reeks of inkhorn grammar, prescribed by some logical-minded schoolmaster who reasoned that if we say ‘many books’ we should also say ‘many more books’ rather than ‘much more books’. I’ve dutifully internalised the rule, but even after many years of obedience in speech and writing, it doesn’t feel quite right.

And I’ve just figured out why. Continue reading

Linguistic gibberish

The study of languages has long been prone to nonsense. Why is linguistics such a magnet for dilettantes and crackpots?


Ah, for the days of fact-free linguistics! The pre-scientific era may have produced a lot of codswallop and hogwash, but how entertaining it is to look back upon. Scholars erred in ways that few modern linguists ever would. Today, their field of study is a respectable social science, exacting in its methods, broad in its scope and generous in its harvest. Without phoneticians, computers wouldn’t be able to process spoken English. Without sociolinguists, prejudice against dialects and non-Western languages would still be rife – or rather, rifer still. Forensic linguists help solve crimes, clinical linguists treat people with language impairments, historical linguists shed light on language change and even on prehistoric culture and migration – the list goes on and on. As in other disciplines, pertinent questions and rigorous methods to answer them have been at the root of success.

When natural philosophy began to slowly develop into physics and other natural sciences, learned speculation in the human domain did not immediately follow suit. But it too gradually developed into what we now call the social sciences, and the study of language was one of the earliest adopters of the new methods. Its practitioners would pore over ancient texts written in long-dead languages and long-forgotten scripts, and compare them ever more systematically. This led to a breakthrough in the late 18th century, when there emerged new ideas about the historical origins of modern languages. Most of these ideas have stood the test of time.

But the budding discipline did not merely come up with new answers, it also changed the questions. Scholars of yore, when reflecting upon language, would wonder things like: Which of the contemporary languages was spoken by the first man? Which one is superior to the rest? And which of the human tongues deserves the label ‘divine’? Modern linguists will not touch those with a ten-foot pole. The oldest language is unknowable, but it was certainly different from anything spoken today. The ‘best’ language is impossible to define in any meaningful way. And as for ‘divine’ – the very word is meaningless in relation to languages, except in a cultural sense.

Not so in the olden days. Indeed, the answers seemed pretty obvious to many thinkers, if only thanks to that most anti-scientific habit of mind known as ethnocentrism. To the ancient Greeks, determining the world’s most excellent language was a perfect no-brainer: it could only be theirs. Continue reading →

Free Norwegian!

pdf(Klikk her for norsk.)
The Norwegian quality daily newspaper
Klassekampen has published an opinion piece about the Norwegian language that I wrote for them. Below, you’ll find my English original. Click here for the translation by Eivind Myklebust.

klassekampen1One of the remarkable and likable things about the Norwegian language is how dialects are used even in formal situations. In most other countries, that is highly unusual. I’m a dialect-speaker myself, yet much of the time I speak standard Dutch, a language I learnt in school. The situation is similar in nearly all other European countries.

Another remarkable, but less likable thing about Norwegian is its split into two official written standards, Bokmål and Nynorsk. To me as an outsider, that looks like a tremendous waste of school-children’s time and tax-payers’ money. (How much time and money exactly seems to be a taboo question; I haven’t found any research quantifying the waste.) The two standards also make Norwegian troublesome for newcomers and outsiders. I can read a fair bit of one (Bokmål, as it happens), but I find the other hard to decipher. Continue reading

Tonal tongue, keen ears?

Thai phone booth‘It seems with a tonal language you can talk in a much lower volume than in European non-tonal languages. In the days before cell phones, in Bangkok, one of the noisiest cities of the world probably, there were phone booths where I could observe Thais chatting away, even on a cacophonous sidewalk on Sukhumvit Road.

When I tried to use the same phone booth in English, I had to shout at the top of my lungs. Maybe tones reduce the importance of the words’ other characteristics, like their phonetic contours.’

I received this interesting observation from a well-travelled American reader, Bill DeFelice. Could it be true that other phonetic features than tone are somewhat less vital in tonal languages, thereby allowing the speaker to reduce the volume? Or can his observation be explained in some other way? Perhaps Thai people are used to speaking at a lower volume, say for cultural reasons, and this habit may have honed their skill for picking up a signal amidst much noise. Or perhaps the Thai language has more redundancy than English, so that missing part of the signal is less fatal for understanding.

Or perhaps none of these ideas makes any sense at all – I’m speculating wildly here. But Bill observed what he observed, and we’re both curious what might be behind it. Suggestions, anyone?

Update: I’m told by linguist Mark Dingemanse that in research comparing twelve languages, including five tonal ones, he did not find any differences between them relating to noise and frequency of misunderstandings. This suggests that Bill’s observation requires some other explanation. 


labonachipOne of the many tiny things that nanotechnologists have developed is a laboratory so small that a mere sliver of silicon can accommodate it. I don’t know what to admire more: this feat of engineering on the littlest imaginable scale or the succinct and graphic name they’ve coined for it, lab-on-a-chip (with lab-on-chip as a fairly common alternative).

But while the word is excellent, the plural is somewhat problematic. Opinions – or perhaps I should say intuitions – are divided between several options, and they nearly all make sense.

My own grammar gut tells me that lab-on-(a-)chip is a case like sister-in-law, tug-of-war and secretary-general. Unusually for English nouns, their main elements (known as heads) come first, which is why their plurals are sisters-in-law, tugs-of-war and secretaries-general. That strongly suggests that labs-on-(a-)chip would be the way to go. At just over 50%, this indeed is the most common form that a Google search turns up.

But hot on its heels, at 46%, is the alternative lab-on-(a-)chips. This seems odd at first sight, but on reflection, it has two important things going for it. Continue reading


Humans only get away with puns that are brilliant, but when reality tries its hand at them, we’re more indulgent.

I am shown around the office of my Spanish publisher in Madrid, and my hostess introduces me to someone I’ve exchanged many pleasant emails with, but never met in person: ‘This is Pilar.’ We hug lightly and peck each other on the cheek.
‘And here’, my hostess continues, ‘we have another Pilar.’ I look in the direction she’s pointing and see… no-one. What I do see is a pillar.
The fact is, pilar is Spanish for ‘pillar’. Is she poking fun at Pilar’s name? That seems a bit out of character. Is she introducing me to the pillar? Unthinkable.
To my relief, the puzzle is solved before I can embarrass myself. Something begins to stir from behind the pillar. Another female figure appears, hand outstretched: ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’


The Spanish translation of Lingo is now for sale in Spain. It will be available in Latin America in late April.

TEDx Talk: Grow Up, Learn Another Language

You may never have heard of Venlo, a medium-sized city in the southeast of the Netherlands, on the German border. The people of Venlo tend to be multilingual, speaking Dutch, German and English as well as their (and my) regional language, Limburgish. The city has gained unsought notoriety as the place where Geert Wilders, the leader of the country’s extreme right, was born and grew up.

Last November, a group of people from Venlo organised their third TEDx event and invited me to participate. I focused my talk on some of the effects of multilingualism: its benefits to the individual, but especially to society. Feel free to let me know what you think.

Vietnamese (4): Flipping the flashcards, fixing the accents

5185390904_5945498ba3_bIn just under four months of – ideally – daily practice, I’ve mastered some 300 Vietnamese words.

Or have I? When I see them on my flashcards, there’s a fair chance that I recognise them and can tell what they mean. But if you were to show me words that I haven’t studied, likely as not I would believe I recognised and understood many of those also. The trouble with Vietnamese is that so many of its words look so damn similar. The letter a alone has 18 varieties, counting all the possible single and double diacritics. But my European eyes will focus on the a as such and my European brain will remember only the bare and unadorned a. I have to force them to pay heed to the scribbles above it – and sometimes even below it, as in ạ, ặ and ậ. Continue reading